‘Underdog’ to prevail in star-driven series
Fittingly, it’s come to this
The Astros won a World Series after letting J.D. Martinez go and receiving nothing in return.
They were still great enough without one of baseball’s best hitters.
When the franchise that Jeff Luhnow and Jim Crane rebuilt captured its first championship —ahead of schedule, overcoming legacy teams with international followings and centuries of combined history — the famed Boston Red Sox answered playoff defeat by hiring Alex Cora, who was previously employed as A.J. Hinch’s bench coach.
Follow the leader. The shining 2017 trophy that will always belong to the city of Houston is all the proof that will be needed. The Astros’ massive overhaul reached liftoff. They were tested by the Red Sox, Yankees, Dodgers, trade-deadline controversy and a hurricane, and they overcame everything. But here we are again. Houston’s ballclub versus Boston’s. A prime-time national stage for the 2018 American League Championship Series. And even though the 103-win Astros set a franchise record for regular-season victories, have the best pitching staff in the sport, just swept Cleveland in the AL Division Series and are baseball’s reigning champs, there was more than a little truth to this:
“Somehow we’re going to enter the series the underdog,” Hinch said Wednesday at Minute Maid Park as the wait began for a dream series for MLB. He was joking. Sort of. “I think we have the best team, but now we have to go out and prove it,” Hinch said. “You’ve got to win four games against the team that had the most wins in the league. That in itself is a challenge.”
Baseball should have no problem promoting this pairing. Potential Hall of Famers. Modern launch-angle power; old-school power pitching, defense and speed.
‘15 or 20 household names’
The 2017 AL MVP, the likely ’18 AL MVP, Alex Bregman’s supreme confidence, Craig Kimbrel firing out of the pen, and former Astros (Martinez, Cora) having led the 108-win Red Sox to the most regularseason victories in franchise history. This series really does have it all, easily overshadowing the odd Dodgers-Brewers pairing in the National League Championship Series.
Proving just how special and memorable this ALCS could be, Hinch proudly ran through all his stadium-sized names: Jose Altuve, George Springer, Carlos Correa, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Dallas Keuchel, Bregman.
Then the Astros’ manager paid tribute to the team that will host Game 1 on Saturday night at Fenway Park.
“I think we’re going to look back at the names on both sides in the coming years and realize there’s a huge amount of quality play and star appeal to this series,” Hinch said. “It’s about the players. You can name two managers, and you can name a couple coaches. But you can rattle off 15 or 20 household names in this series that baseball should be proud of.”
Five seasons after their rebuild bottomed out at 51-111, the Astros have earned the luxury of waiting around while the Yankees and Red Sox fight it out. And even with Boston’s surreal 108 wins and 27-14 cumulative beatdown of New York in the ALDS, Hinch’s Astros — deeper, more experienced, battle-tested but still hungry and driven — are the smart pick for four more October wins and a return ticket to the Fall Classic.
Cora was forced to turn to ALCS Game 1 starter Chris Sale in relief to hold off the Yankees. Hinch didn’t even have to use Charlie Morton, one of the Astros’ strongest arms and last season’s World Series Game 7 winner, to sweep the Indians.
Boston’s bullpen does not inspire public faith. The last time the Astros played a playoff game at Fenway, Bregman screamed from the top of a shaking dugout and Hinch’s celebrating club posed for pictures in the October rain. John Farrell was fired two days later, leading Boston to Cora.
“We did win last year. We still feel like we’re the team to beat. We’re very confident in this clubhouse,” said Bregman, who has become the spokesperson for the even-better orange and blue in 2018. “We also know that we have a tough task ahead of us, and if we want to get to where we want to go, we have to take it one pitch at a time from Game 1.
“It’s going to be a fun environment to play up there in Boston. They have great fans. They’re into every pitch. They know the game of baseball, similar to how our fans are here — Houston fans are unbelievable.”
Ruling on the road
It has become so easy to believe in the Astros.
We expect the ALCS and wait for the World Series. You’re picking them in five, six or seven — the latter is my selection — and pointing to the best road record (57-24) in the sport.
They can miss on Martinez and still end up with a ring. They lose Cora to the Red Sox, then back Verlander with Cole and turn 101 wins into 103.
Boston has the history and receives the national spotlight. If this ALCS lives up to its 211 combined victories, the Red Sox will be the toughest contender Hinch’s club has faced since the Astros started winning again in 2015. It’s obviously foolish to overlook a 108-win team.
But as October reaches its next stage and the reigning champs head north, know this: Baseball is still trying to figure out how to beat the Astros.
It won’t be any trouble for Carlos Correa, left, and George Springer to get sky high for an American League Championship Series that pits two teams that combined for 211 regular-season wins. That ties for the most in a league championship series in baseball history.
The star power at the disposal of Astros manager A.J. Hinch, from left, includes 2017 AL MVP Jose Altuve, 2018 AL MVP candidate Alex Bregman, 2017 World Series MVP George Springer and 2017 ALCS MVP Justin Verlander.